More bullying PSAs can be seen here: Stop Bulllying PSA

The two fathers were incensed. They believed their middle school daughters were victims of bullying by a “gang” of their peers. Yet their daughters were suspended for some retaliatory remarks on social media that the fathers said were taken out of context. They originally asked The BayNet to do a story about it and then later changed their minds when the school system in question removed their daughters’ suspensions and promised an investigation of the alleged gang.

The BayNet decided to honor the request not to do a story about that specific incident in one of the school systems in Southern Maryland. It also was decided that a more detailed look at the subject of bullying in the schools was in order.

As schools were about to open for the 2015-16 school year, we sat down with representatives of the Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s public school systems to find out what they will be doing this year to address the problem of bullying in their schools. We talked to Calvert County Director of Student Services Kimberly Roof, Charles County Supervising School Counselor Alicia Jones and St. Mary’s County Deputy Superintendent Maureen Montgomery. St. Mary’s County Public Schools (SMCPS) Director of Safety and Security J. Michael Wyant joined Montgomery for the interview in that county.

Roof and Montgomery are former principals and Jones is a former in-school counselor so all three have on-the-ground experience in dealing with bullying.

All three counties are seeing downward reporting trends for bullying, perhaps a reflection of the increased awareness of the subject. And, all three counties are using the opening of the school to put the issue before parents and students and prepare school administrators, teachers and counselors to deal with it.

“Bullying, harassment and intimidation are serious and will not be tolerated.” Those are the opening words of the Calvert County “Bullying, Harassment and Intimidation Reporting Form” that is included in the  Students’ Rights, Responsibilities and Code of Conduct” handed to every student on opening day.

Charles County hands out a similar document with a letter signed by Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Hill.

St. Mary’s County includes a section on bullying in the student handbook handed out on the first day. Homeroom teachers go over the handbook and talk about bullying during the first few days of school. Montgomery says each school handles the delivery of the message in their own way tailored to the individual needs of their school.

So what is bullying? According to the go to website on bullying, www.stopbullying.gov, “Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.”

The government website emphasizes that in order for behavior to be bullying it “must be aggressive” and include an imbalance of power and repetition.

Charles County’s Jones told the BayNet that rarely is bullying ever solely between two people. It usually involves an argument or disagreement that escalates into name calling. Jones said usually the bullying situation involves a group doing the bullying or at least a group of bystanders on the fringe and observing but doing nothing to stop it.

Deputy Superintendent Montgomery from St. Mary’s disagrees somewhat, saying that she has observed bullying situation involving just two students. She said, “It usually starts as a conflict between two students.”

State law requires complaints of bullying to be reported. All of the school systems have reports for that and the forms are available online and in the material handed out in the early days of the school year. Reports can be filed by students, parents or an observer of the bullying.

Charles County’s main thrust at bullying prevention comes during October, which is National Bullying Prevention Month.

St. Mary’s emphasizes the subject, according to Wyant, through the school system’s partnership with College of Southern Maryland‘s Cause Theater, which presents plays with real life situations, such as bullying, aimed at school age children. Wyant said 12,000 of the system’s students saw the plays last school year.

Jones said bullying “always starts with something innocent.” Then things escalate. It could begin with a student saying “Yo Mamma.” As a matter of fact there was an MTV show of the same name. Sometimes that is all it is…name calling, with a response of “Yo Mamma.” If one of students gets tired of the back and forth they may report it as bullying, but it really isn’t. Keep in mind the definition from above.

Montgomery observed that those one on one confrontations that occur outside the school are “brought into the school the next day.” Sometimes the confrontation occurs on the bus rides to and from school. Bus drivers are brought into the conversation through in-service training.

But the flipside of misreporting is not reporting at all. Roof talked about some of the reason why a student being bullied may not report it. They include:
• Fear that the situation will escalate if reported
• The perception that the reporter is ratting on another student
• Giving the appearance of weakness

Roof said sometimes middle and high school bullying victims “think they can handle it.” She added, “Elementary school students do a better job (of reporting).”
The representatives from the three counties didn’t think there was any reluctance on the part of parents to report an incident once they know about it. Happening rarely is the situation where a father tells a son to man up or fight back.

The stopbullying website reports three types of bullying: verbal, social and physical. Social bullying can include:
• Leaving someone out on purpose
• Telling other children not to be friends with someone
• ‘Spreading rumors about someone
• Embarrassing someone in public

The whole bullying issue is becoming more complex with the pervasive use of social media among young people, as witnessed by the case that prompted this story. Allegedly one of the victims called one of the alleged gang members a name as part of a reply to a posting.

“We are Superheroes. You are not alone. We are all here to support you,” is the message that Jones wants to convey to the students.  But Jones adds that there is nothing that can be done to help support the person being bullied unless someone–parent, teacher, principal–knows about it. That’s why everyone involved underscores the importance of reporting. There is the feeling that incidents, in spite of the increased awareness of the subject, are still underreported.

St. Mary’s message has been aided by unusual student peer involvement. Former St. Mary’s County Board of Education student member Peter Widmeyer, who was the victim of bullying, used his position on the board as an opportunity to speak out against bullying and for bullying prevention. Current student member Sarita Lee is using her position to fight against drugs.

“Scott (Superintendent Smith) wants to hear from the kids,” Montgomery insisted.
The school systems have investigative procedures and have someone assigned to make the incident reports to the state. Suspension or even expulsion is an ultimate potential outcome for someone found to be bullying, although the trend in the state is away from that and towards intervention and getting the offender back into the school setting as soon as possible.

Those in charge of the issue are constantly involved in outreach to get the message to the public. “I feel we are doing a better job of intervention,” Roof said. She or the school counselors speak to whoever will listen…community organizations, churches, the Commission on Women, etc.

Roof said the campaign against bullying is part of an overall school-based “Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS) which addresses school climate. “It’s about catching kids doing good things,” she said.

And in Charles County, there’s one day set aside during National Bullying Prevention Month called Unity Day (this year Oct. 21). Everyone wears orange, even in the central office, to show support for that message – report and “We are there to support you.”

Charles County Public Schools Communications Department also has created videos to support that message. Click on the link at the top of this story to view them.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com